Maverick artists _ those who stake out creative territory completely their own and cultivate it in uniquely personal ways _ have been prominent in American culture and have given the country much of its greatest art. Fiction, painting and film all offer remarkable examples of maverick art, but it is probably in music that the tradition is at its peak.
AMERICAN MAVERICKS COWELL: Synchrony, Piano Concerto CHARRISON: Concerto For Organ With Percussion Orchestra VARESE: Ameriques Jeremy Denk (piano, in the Cowell concerto), Paul Jacobs (organ, in the Harrison concerto), San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. SFS Media download or multichannel CD
The conductor Michael Tilson Thomas loves this repertoire, and has been enriching his concert programmes with works by American mavericks like Charles Ives, John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Carl Ruggles for decades.
These recordings, made live in 2010 and 2012, preserve knockout performances of works by three more: Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison and the transplanted Frenchman Edgar Varese.
Cowell was a tireless experimenter in rhythms and different ethnic musical techniques and tunings, but is probably best remembered today for his use of tone clusters _ groups of adjacent tones sounded together as a chord, for example by pressing down piano keys with the fist or forearm. These were nothing new _ in 1737 the French Baroque composer Jean-Fery Rebel started of his ballet, Les Elements, with a whopper of a tone cluster for full orchestra, and Cowell's friend Charles Ives had been using them frequently for years. But it was Cowell who named them and became associated with them, so much so that when Bartok wanted to use tone clusters in his piano pieces, he politely asked for Cowell's permission.
Both of the Cowell pieces on this programme make full use of them. Synchrony, originally written for a never-produced dance work by Martha Graham, begins with a long trumpet solo that weaves about, changing character and colour so beguilingly that some listeners may wonder if it was in Elliott Carter's mind when he wrote a similarly soaring trumpet solo at the beginning of his A Symphony Of Three Orchestras.
Eventually it yields to a simple, lyrical theme that will dominate the rest of the piece in various transformations. Even listeners allergic to musical modernism may be seduced by the early portion of Synchrony, where adjacent tones gradually accrete around the melody until it becomes a huge, cloudlike, multi-coloured cluster with the orchestration allowing the tune at its centre to register and dominate.
Later, as the texture becomes busier and more active, the theme resurfaces in constantly changing guises and colours. Beautiful, and as you listen you may wonder what Martha Graham might have done with it. Each of the three movements of Cowell's brief Piano Concerto is named for a musical device that it features: Polyharmony, then Tone Cluster, and finally Counter Rhythm, although each of these features can be found in all three. The first movement culminates in a cadenza that may well be played using the fists, and in parts sounds like one of Cowell's famous solo piano tone cluster pieces, Advertisement.
I was less aware of the tone clusters in the initially restrained central movement named for them than I was in the hard-driving outer movements. Its most striking feature is a lyrical theme not a thousand miles away from the one around which Synchrony is built (there are hints of it throughout the concerto). The final movement is as rhythmically jagged as its title suggests, and must be at least as pleasantly exhausting to play and conduct as it is to listen to. Despite its modernist aggressiveness, Cowell's Piano Concerto is a light and entertaining work, bursting with energy and colour, and soloist Jeremy Denk plays the hell out of it.
Composer Lou Harrison has dug deeper into non-Western musical traditions than Cowell did, and his catalogue of works is one of the most exotically beautiful of any by an American composer. On compact disc there are programmes of works for gamelan, for guitar in unconventional tunings, and much more, all idiomatic and intriguingly formed. The Concerto For Organ With Percussion Orchestra recorded here is the most striking piece by Harrison that I have heard. Except for a few parts of its finale, which seem to echo Messiaen's Turangalila symphony, the music belongs to a category that is completely its own.
Harrison divides the 23-minute work into five movements, arranged into a symmetrical, arch-like architectural form borrowed from Bartok. Aggressive outer movements are followed and preceded by shorter, lighter ones (the first of them an organ solo), surrounding a slow, meditative movement at the centre, where the piece's heart is located.
The opening kicks off with some violent lunging back and forth between the organ and the percussion orchestra that soon yields, briefly, to gamelan-like ostinato. Sudden changes of tone like this (and sometimes contrasting kinds of music moving in parallel on different strata) somehow seem to complement each other naturally.
The organ is by nature a dissonant-sounding instrument, and Harrison makes eloquent use of this quality in the delicate but astringent "Siciliana in the form of a double canon" organ solo that forms the concerto's second movement. Canonic writing can be heard throughout the concerto, most movingly at the beginning of the central Largo, a good point for online sampling for anyone interested in investigating this piece. Organist Paul Jacobs clearly relished this concerto as fully as Jeremy Denk does the Cowell piece.
All three of these pieces are rarities, but not so Varese's Ameriques, which has been recorded many times since the 1960s. It is a wild work even by Varese's standards, with an enormous orchestra that includes sirens letting loose at times with all the force it's got. Varese composed it soon after moving from France to New York, and although he denied that it was an aural portrait of the American city, it is difficult not to hear echoes of the urban landscape, and even of the nascent jazz of the period, in its huge, often furiously active textures.
The performance here (of a revision the composer made in the 1920s that reduces its originally even more gigantic orchestra) is a stunner, one of the best on disc, although Robert Craft's original 1960s recording for Columbia, now Sony, comes close and Christoph von Dohnanyi's with the Cleveland Orchestra (sharing the programme with a good account of Charles Ives's Fourth Symphony) turns up the voltage even higher. Riccardo Chailly's account, also on Decca, is interesting because of its use of the original gargantuan orchestra, but lacks the excitement of the versions mentioned above, and Boulez somehow falls down in both of his DG accounts.
As with the other works on the programme, Tilson Thomas is completely at home in Varese's score, and builds up the tension so high during the long, concluding crescendo that when the piece concludes, the audience explodes with enthusiasm. The iTunes download gets much of this music's astonishing dynamism across, but if you have a system that can play SACD multi-channel recordings, go for the CD if this music interests you. It's expensive (currently US$23.64 plus shipping on US Amazon; I doubt you'll find the disc for sale here in Bangkok), but once you hear it, you won't regret the expense.
About the author
- Writer: Ung-Aang Talay